7 Types of Roman Weapons [History, Facts & Pics]

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7 Types of Famous & Deadly Weapons of Ancient Rome  

The Roman Empire’s power in Europe and the Near East was consolidated through military might. The Roman army was essential to the success of the Roman Empire, as soldiers took new territories and expanded the influence of Rome. 

The structure of the Roman army took shape over centuries as different leaders enacted new rules and reforms. The success of the Roman army is partly explained by its organization. Soldiers were ranked according to social status and skill and kept in line by a hierarchy of military professionals. 

Roman Empire army
The Roman Empire’s army was one of the most fearsome in world history. Marco Dente, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rome also utilized a range of weapons to ensure victory. The designs of many Roman weapons were inspired by their enemies. Others were uniquely Roman and just as deadly. 

Roman soldiers prized their collection of weapons. Some weaponry was standard issue and provided for by the Roman government. Evidence also suggests that weapons were private property and were paid for by soldiers. 

Roman army
The Roman army fought cultures in Europe, Africa, and the Near East. Thomas Pennant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because weapons were so essential to the survival of Roman soldiers, the military ensured that weapons remained functional. A portion of a soldier’s salary was withheld to cover the repair or replacement of weapons. 

Weapons were so valuable that some were inscribed with soldiers’ names and army unit numbers. 

Now that we have established the importance of Roman weapons, let’s take a look at some specific types and their uses. 

1) Gladius

A reproduction Roman gladius.

The Roman gladius is one of the most famous swords in world history. This short sword originated with the tribes of the Iberian Peninsula and was adopted by the Roman army following the Punic Wars. 

The short length of the gladius made it extremely effective in close combat. The blade length of the gladius averaged 25 inches and was double edged. 

Gladius hilts were crafted from wood and sometimes plated with silver or bronze. A substantial pommel balanced the weapon. 

Soldiers wore the gladius in a scabbard attached to a belt. The scabbard was made from metal, wood, or leather. 

The gladius was the main weapon of the Roman army from the third century BC to the third century AD. During this time, several distinct variations of the gladius emerged. 

These include the gladius hispaniensis, the Mainz gladius, and the Pompeii gladius. The gladius hispaniensis was the earliest form that was popular in the late Republic era. This variation had a longer blade than later swords. 

Mainz gladius
The Mainz gladius on display in Britain. Caeciliusinhorto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mainz gladius that appeared in the first century BC was shorter than the hispaniensis variation. This sword is named for the city of Mainz in modern Germany. In Roman times, Mainz was a Roman camp where gladius swords were crafted and sold to peoples in the north. 

The Pompeii variation of the gladius from the first century AD is considered the most popular. It was also the shortest gladius with an 18-20 inch blade. 

The gladius was eventually replaced by the spatha sword. 

2) Spatha

spatha sword
A reenactor carries a reproduction spatha sword. David FrielDavid Friel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The spatha was a long sword introduced to the Romans by Celtic mercenaries during the Second Punic War. The Roman cavalry were the first to use the spatha, and the sword eventually became standard issue for legionaries. 

spatha re-enactment
The spatha was longer than the gladius and eventually became the standard issue sword of the Roman army. User:MatthiasKabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The spatha was most popular from the first century AD to the sixth century. The sword’s blade measured 19 to 40 inches. 

3) Pugio

pugio in sheath
A reproduction pugio in a decorated sheath. No machine-readable author provided. MatthiasKabel assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Roman pugio was a dagger worn by legionaries and other soldiers as a sidearm. Like the gladius, the pugio’s design hailed from the Iberian Peninsula. 

While pugio daggers were highly functional, their sheaths were generally ornate. Decorated sheaths were crafted from a variety of materials and showed a soldier’s status. 

pugio closeup
The sheaths of pugio daggers were ornate. Roland zh, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The pugio’s blade was double edged and measured 7 to 12 inches. Bone, wood, or metal were used to craft the handle. 

Roman soldiers utilized the pugio from the first century BC until the Empire’s fall in 476 AD. 

4) Pila & Hasta

A Roman soldier holds a pila, or javelin. These weapons were thrown at long range. See page for author, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Roman army did not rely solely on swords and daggers. Javelins and spears were deadly weapons used with great skill. The Roman javelin, or pila, measured up to 7 feet long and consisted of a wooden shaft and iron shank. 

The iron shank was designed to bend so it could not be used by the enemy. 

bent pila
A bent pila. The pila was specially designed to bend upon impact so enemy soldiers could not use it against Romans. Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The pila had a throwing range of 100 feet. A similar weapon to the pila was the hasta, which was a spear. Unlike the pila, the hasta was used for thrusting, not throwing. 

The hasta measured an average of 2 meters (6 feet 7 inches) long and was commonly crafted from ash wood. 

hasta spear
The hasta was a thrusting weapon used by the Roman army. Neues Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Roman soldiers used these weapons for several centuries before they lost popularity in the third century AD. 

5) Plumbatae

Plumbatae were weighted throwing darts that could measure up to 12 inches long. Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The plumbatae were weighted throwing darts used by legionaries. These weapons were unusual but effective tools of the Romans that surprised the enemy. 

Plumbatae had iron tips, lead weights, wooden shafts, and fletching. They measured a foot long in total. 

Developed by the Greeks in 500 BC and adopted by the Romans in 300 AD, the plumbatae, or “little barbs of Mars,” were unique and deadly weapons. 

Soldiers carried five plumbatae on the inside of their shields. When necessary, soldiers threw their plumbatae high in the air so the darts rained down on the enemy. This forced opponents to raise their shields, exposing their torsos to Roman javelins or swords. 

Roman darts were effective at a range of up to 80 meters. 

The economical plumbatae were retrieved after battle and and refurbished with new wooden shafts and fletching. 

6) Scutum

scutum shield reproductions
Reproduction scutum shields. Characteristics of the scutum include a rectangular, curved shape and large metal boss. No machine-readable author provided. MatthiasKabel assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The scutum is the most famous style of Roman shield. It is included in a list of Roman weapons because its metal boss and reinforcements could be used offensively when needed. 

Scutum shields are characterized by their slightly curved, rectangular shape. They were built from flat strips to make them lightweight and easier to carry into battle. 

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